Was America great in the summer of 1987, when Geffen Records released the debut of a nascent supergroup cobbled together from the unwashed remains of the L.A. Guns and Hollywood Rose? How about in 1964, the year of the British Invasion, the Gulf of Tonkin, and the second birthday of William Bruce Rose, Jr., who would soon be kidnapped and sexually abused by his namesake, the biological father whose existence the juvenile delinquent was only to discover at age seventeen, when he moved from Lafayette, Indiana, to Los Angeles and adopted the name of his first band, AXL, as his own? Certainly not in 2000, when Rose’s lead guitarist, Slash, who quit Guns N’ Roses in 1996, was replaced by a man wearing a bucket on his head, and George W. Bush stole the presidency from Al Gore, laying a crucial foundation for the current iteration of the forever war, evangelical-sponsored autocracy, and electoral clusterfucks? Never more than in 2020 have the utopian strums of “Paradise City” resonated so wistfully. Please, Axl, oh won’t you please take us home?
When Rose first spoke out against Donald Trump, via Twitter, in 2018, it was to distance his brand from the president’s, accusing Trump’s campaign of “using loopholes” to play GNR songs at rallies. Describing GNR’s music as “anti Trump,” he takes pains not to alienate consumers: “As far as I’m concerned anyone can enjoy GNR 4 whatever reason n’ there’s truth 2 the saying ‘u can’t choose your fans’ n’ we’re good w/that.” What commentary Rose offers stops short of specifics, condemning “the anger n’ resentment [Trump] sows 24/7 while constantly whining how whatever doesn’t go his way is unfair,” the administration’s lack of “regard for truth, ethics, morals or empathy of any kind, who says what’s real is fake n’ what’s fake is real.” After a hiatus of more than a year, it is unclear whether Rose’s return to online punditry should be read as an indication that our ongoing oligarchical progression is undermining the Republican base, or if the frontman of one of American music’s bestselling albums is simply engaging in a bit of resistance grift.
Peevish, narcissistic, entrepreneurial, and stoned, Rose was a ringmaster drunk with power.
The irony is sweeter, even, than Keith Richards’s personal stash: before Kid Rock’s political awakening, competition from Ted Nugent, Mike Love, John Lydon, Gene Simmons, and Kanye West notwithstanding, Rose was already the Donald Trump of rock and roll. By 1988, when Appetite for Destruction eventually mounted the Billboard charts, Rose’s lithe physique, ginger locks, and bad-boy persona had welcomed him to the tabloids; a complicated romance with his “Sweet Child,” the model daughter of the elder Everly Brother, made the singer easy to exploit. G N’ R Lies, his band’s sophomore LP, openly courted a fanbase of deplorables on “One in a Million,” whose embrace of the N-word in its second verse is only the most shocking aspect of a broader endorsement of the Republican platform:
Immigrants and faggots
They make no sense to me
They come to our country
And think they’ll do as they please
Like start some mini-Iran
Or spread some fucking disease
And they talk so many goddamn ways
It’s all Greek to me
As Slash, a black immigrant from London, imitates Richards’s trademark fuzz over Steven Adler’s Latin-tinged, “Sympathy for the Devil” hand percussion, Rose unconvincingly anticipates objections:
Radicals and racists
Don’t point your finger at me
I’m a small-town white boy
Just tryin’ to make ends meet
Don’t need your religion
Don’t watch that much TV
Just makin’ my livin’ baby
Well that’s enough for me
Rose’s heartland stance is a far cry from Trump’s boarding-school roots, but if modern political history has taught us anything, it’s that claims to represent the Volk are usually dog whistles to a more nefarious elite. The Hoosier downplayed charges of racism in a Rolling Stone interview: equating his use of the epithet to John Lennon’s, Rose argued that it “doesn’t necessarily mean black,” and if N.W.A. can use it, why can’t he? “I don’t like boundaries of any kind.” As for the homophobia, Rose identified as “pro-heterosexual” (before settling on Guns N’ Roses, the band had flirted with calling itself AIDS), but not so strictly that he would decline to play The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in 1992, inciting protests from ACT UP.
Xenophobia and misogyny (see, for instance, “Back Off Bitch,” on Use Your Illusion I, the first half of a 1991 double album) aside, what is most frustrating about Guns N’ Roses is that some of their music is quite good, uncomfortably connecting Kurt Cobain’s post-punk return to the Lennon-McCartney school of songwriting and the excesses of 1980s hair metal in ways that legitimize the latter, if only in retrospect. If the Rolling Stones modeled the louche archetype of the rock group in opposition to the Beatles’ relative tweeness, GNR fulfilled the promise of the Great American Band that Aerosmith, hailing from Boston, could never live up to, and the Strokes, spoiled Manhattanites, would later perfect. Before Trump hypocritically rebranded it as “outsider politics,” Rose embodied the Star Is Born myth of the American Dream satirized by Billy Wilder and Nathanael West: any hick can make it in show business, because all audiences desire is a reflection of themselves. At the end of history, Rose was America. Peevish, narcissistic, entrepreneurial, and stoned, here was a ringmaster drunk with power, pushing grand pianos through windows and settling out of court.
Rose’s adversarial relationship with the media grew in severity over the decade between the announcement of his latest record, Chinese Democracy, and its release in 2008, but his hatred of journalists was on full display in Use Your Illusion II’s “Get in the Ring.” Lowering his fried tenor, Rose hurls spoken bile at magazines which, for the most part, are now no longer in print:
And that goes for all of you punks in the press
That want to start shit by printin’ lies instead of the things we said
That means you Andy Secher at Hit Parader, Circus magazine,
Mick Wall at Kerrang, Bob Guccione, Jr., at Spin
What you pissed off ‘cause your dad gets more pussy than you?
Fuck you! Suck my fuckin’ dick!
It’s not hard to imagine Trump, still high on coverage of his divorce from Ivana, telling his driver to turn up the volume in speechless admiration.
Only a candidate as sleazy as our president would attempt to appropriate the GNR songbook for a national campaign.
Chinese Democracy was written during a period of reclusion, when Rose holed up in a Malibu mansion to rehearse the rebooted GNR that would tour internationally for ten years with rotating personnel while his former bandmates joined Scott Weiland, formerly of Stone Temple Pilots, to form Velvet Revolver. A litigious plaintiff and experienced defendant, Rose’s legal team has served or been served by his label, manager, bandmates, ex-wife, and even Activision, the latter for “fraudulently inducing him into authorizing” the use of “Welcome to the Jungle” in Guitar Hero III. When his band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in its first year of eligibility, 2012, Rose posted an open letter to Facebook declaring his intent to boycott the ceremony, writing of requests to reunite the original musicians as “misguided attempts to distract from our efforts with our current lineup,” and of Slash et al., “There’s a seemingly endless amount of revisionism and fantasies out there for the sake of self-promotion and business opportunities masking the actual realities.” The Cleveland crowd booed him in absentia at the ceremony; ever the politician, he spun it into a quasi-apology, and in 2016, Rose took the stage with Slash and bassist Duff McKagan for the first time since 1993.
Only a candidate as sleazy as our president would attempt to appropriate the GNR songbook for a national campaign, but that’s what happened, granting Rose fresh relevance and constituting a rite of passage on its own. GNR’s reemphasis on the blues origins of hard rock as the genre transitioned out of its most bubblegum phase drew comparisons to the Stones and Led Zeppelin, but also Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers; by the 1980s, even Tom Petty was using the Confederate flag to rile up the white working class. LA isn’t the South, but god knows Indiana is close enough, and California has always had its own racial tensions, especially at the dawn of West Coast hip hop. As the popularization of rap expanded to even the whitest suburbs, the guitar band—especially one as major as GNR—became a reactionary signifier. Rose captured an angrier market share than John Mellencamp, inspiring, along with Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and others of the grunge cohort, a generation of nü-metal bands that, by this millennium, rapped rather than sang, negating the negation, as it were, to which Rose’s newly braided cornrows lent tacit approval. From the football stadium to the message boards, distorted Gibsons and right-wing paranoia are intimate companions, giving voice and expression to a gendered, ethnic, and chemical rage.